A few things of note from Manchester United’s defeat at Huddersfield.
Blip or dip?
Criticism of Manchester United’s recent (see, post October international break) form has been rebutted on these pages and our shows by a number of our contributors. There was no doubting that United were poor at Anfield but this was put into context by the history of the fixture and the general point about a point at Liverpool being a good result, because, ‘form goes out of the window’.
In Portugal against Benfica United were more proactive and definitely the better team but were still a little unconvincing. Again, though, the context was applied to make it seem understandable. It was the toughest remaining fixture in the group, and a positive result would go a long way towards qualification. And it was in Europe, and we all know, in Europe, result trumps performance.
All eyes then were on the John Smith Stadium, as they would be anyway. United had no reason not to take the game to the newly promoted side without a win or even a goal for a couple of months. Their insipid display now provides a greater answer to the concerns of the last week – United are in a dip in form and the question mark now for the manager is, has he improved his squad enough to not see United’s league title falter away in the autumn as it did last year?
Jose gets it wrong
You could argue this one was down to the players because United had enough talent on the bench and in reserve to win. Talent alone doesn’t win games, as Huddersfield proved and as we’ll discuss later. Application and dedication, and also good management, contribute.
On that last point a question mark should be asked about the changes. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was dropped because the manager wanted more ‘intensity’ and you can’t help but feel it was the sort of occasion where he would have liked to have the rumoured summer target Willian available to select. The Armenian is badly out of form – more on that in a minute – and with United needing three goals, and with the requirement for intensity greater than ever, bringing him on at half time seemed counter productive to hopes of a comeback. He was forced into an early change but also went for broke by making his remaining changes at the break. By the hour mark it was clear that United were going to lose.
Mourinho was accused of throwing his players under the bus rather than parking it this week, after Ander Herrera’s admission that United’s attitude and desire seemed to be lacking. However, considering it was the player who made the remark, and Mourinho was reacting to it, perhaps his ‘Oh my God!’ reaction was on the money and justified.
Indeed, it’s a very concerning remark for supporters to hear. Herrera is another out of form and is given a free pass based on his ostensible passion for the shirt and his love of the club. There’s a distinct difference between loving playing for Manchester United and being driven to win for Manchester United and there was the impression yesterday that there were too many players in the former category rather than the latter.
Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini were two big misses, as was Eric Bailly. Perhaps Bailly has been the biggest miss because United have lacked that defensive authority he brought. Pogba, due to his presence, has been described as the biggest miss, and there’s no doubt that the creativity he brings was sorely needed. Should United be able to compensate for his absence? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t missed.
It’s a catch-all point to summarise the above, isn’t it – individually and collectively United look disjointed. Lindelof was awful and culpable for both goals. Ashley Young looked every bit a winger playing at left back. Herrera was poor. Mkhitaryan was invisible.
So how does Mourinho fix it going forward? Does he persist with Lindelof and hope he becomes acclimatised soon, and the knock-on question – which pair will emerge as the manager’s favourite in the middle of defence? Does he opt for the direct approach of Rashford and Martial as opposed to the slower and more ponderous Mkhitaryan and Mata? Does he give Luke Shaw a final chance, considering how much of a handicap playing without a proper left back is becoming? On a related note, does he stop playing players in positions they aren’t familiar with? And if United’s players are really going on to the pitch without the requisite desire, how does he fix it?
The answers to these questions will determine how quickly United can get out of the current rut. There is no need for an over-reaction just yet (though the defeat easily ranks as one of the most abject in the club’s Premier League history) but certainly, a short term reaction is crucial if Mourinho wishes to bring the league title back to Old Trafford.